N E W Y O R K, March 25 — They assume false names and give away everything they own. They sever contact with family and friends. Wandering the country, they sleep in public places and live off other people’s discards. If asked, they’d be hard pressed to tell you where they’ll be next week, let alone next year.
These are not fugitives or drifters who’ve fallen on hard times, but bright, educated individuals who once led successful lives in mainstream America. As Diane Sawyer reported on PrimeTime Live, these people have chosen to lead a nomadic, spartan existence in search of spiritual salvation.
Followers of cult leader Jim Roberts, often known to outsiders as “the Brethren,” or “the Garbage Eaters,” constitute one of the most secretive and impenetrable religious cults in America today. Roberts—also called “Brother Evangelist”— carefully orchestrates every moment of their hardscrabble existence.
Cult expert Jim Siegelman says the Roberts Group is “the most insidious and potentially destructive of almost any other cult group around today because of the way they use the Bible, because of the way they trip their members’ minds and physically isolate them, and the way they spirit people all over the country so that they can’t even be found.”
Although the group has been around for a quarter of a century, few people know about it because Roberts —an ex-Marine, hairdresser and preacher—studiously avoids contact with media and law enforcement.
PrimeTime managed to catch up with Roberts at a bus stop in California. Looking jumpy and nervous, Roberts seemed reluctant to speak to a reporter.
“We no ways believe that we’re a cult,” he said in response to a question about his group. Asked about allegations that he encourages group members to sever ties with their families, he said, “Well, sometimes we do that because of what Christ taught”—but he didn’t elaborate on those teachings.
Active Minds Corralled
The Roberts Group is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Families describe former football stars, Ivy League students and successful entrepreneurs inexplicably surrendering their dreams and dismantling their personalities to become Roberts’ minions, seemingly overnight.
“Universities are prime recruiting grounds,” says Siegelman, who wrote Snapping, a book on mind control, with Flo Conway. It’s “the brightest most imaginative kids… whose minds are open, who are actively searching… more than someone who’s maybe less intelligent or more passive, who are going to wind up being a target for the recruiters.”
The Roberts Group seeks out vulnerable young adults on college campuses during high-stress exam periods. Their modus operandi is to immediately and radically isolate new members from their former lives, forbidding contact with loved ones. Initiates are given a Hebrew name and taken into hiding in a different part of the country.
Fear of Damnation
They are also convinced, with help from carefully selected Bible text, that if they leave the group or disobey Roberts’ dictates they will be eternally damned. Few who join ever leave.
One former group member told PrimeTime Roberts twisted Scripture to isolate his followers from their own families. “There is a place in the Bible where Jesus said a man’s enemies will arise out of those—his own family. But Jim Roberts turned that around and presented a case that everyone in your family is your enemy.”
Attempts to communicate with family members would be punished by ostracism, the former group member said. “If you communicated with your family, you were put out of the group. In his mind, he was sending them to hell because, you know, that was what it meant to leave the group in his mind.”
One bearded, soft-spoken cult member in Berkeley, Calif., told PrimeTime that the secrecy was necessary to protect cult members from being “kidnapped” by their parents.
They fear the efforts of parents like Judy and Larry Wilcox, whose son Bart, an athlete and former exchange scholar to South Africa, abruptly left college to join the cult in 1991. The Wilcoxes, who are desperately trying to find their son, say the once “all-American kid, the kind of child that you pray for,” sent them a letter in the characteristically tiny scrawl of “the Brethren” saying only, “God willing, this will be the last time you ever hear from me.”
The parents of the cult members say the prospect of their independent, college-age children falling prey to a cult once seemed preposterous. They can’t fathom what went wrong to make them change so suddenly. Nor do they know when, or if, they will ever see their children again.
How to Recognize a Cult
- The group focuses on a living leader who gets members’ zealous, unquestioning commitment
- Recruiting new members is very important to the group
- Making money is very important to the group
- Mind-numbing techniques (including meditation, chanting, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged, even punished
- Members are controlled through guilt
- Members are told how to think, act or feel (what to wear, how to discipline children; who to befriend, date, marry, or work for)
- Members cut ties with family or friends
- Members give up personal goals and activities they once cared about
- The group claims special or exalted status (The leader is seen as divine or “chosen”; the group or leader has a special mission)
- The group has a polarized mentality (us vs. them)
- The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are mainstream military and religious leaders)
- Members are encouraged or required to live or socialize only with other group members
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group
Source: Adapted from the AFF Checklist